In the book Flanagan studies unemployment and the political activism of the unemployed from the Tudor period to the passage of the New Poor Law, up to the time of the Social Democratic Federation. He emphasizes that the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was the primary agency used for protest by the unemployed. Choice contributor J.H. Wiener wrote that "unfortunately, his efforts at scholarship are drowned in a sea of anticapitalist rhetoric." American Journal of Sociology contributor Richard Lewis called Flanagan's study "interesting" and "useful," but felt that he does not disprove the accepted idea that the unemployed were not a potential threat to public order or that their collective action could change their destiny. Lewis noted two ways in which he found the book particularly useful: "It helps to kill the once widely held but erroneous idea that the NUWM was simply a front for the Communist Party of Great Britain. Second, it has a valuable chapter on the role of state-supported voluntary social service for the unemployed."
Flanagan's first novel, Death of a River Guide, is narrated by Aljaz Cosini, a guide who at the beginning of the story is drowning, trapped in the rocks of Tasmania's Franklin River. Aljaz's father is Tasmanian and his mother Italian, and he is married to Couta Ho, an Australian-Chinese woman. The death of their daughter Jemma, at two months of age, marks the beginning of the events that lead up to Aljaz's death. Aljaz's flashbacks are of his own life and the lives of his ancestors. Vivian Smith wrote in the Times Literary Supplement that "stories of old convict Tasmania--of cannibalism and the rape and pillage of Aboriginal women--are woven into the text of Cosini's discovery of his own Aboriginal forebears. More recent events--the depredation of forests and rivers, the slow destruction of native fauna and flora by the mining and timber industries and the hydroelectric development schemes, the attempts to save the remaining wilderness--are presented, matter-of-factly, as they impinge on the family. It is a grim picture of what has happened to Tasmania. Flanagan's novel is above all an elegy for a lost world."
World Literature Today contributor John Scheckter commented that "without losing a shred of postmodern irony, the narrative allows Cosini's drowning to seem psychologically appropriate and emotionally fulfilling; thus, Death of a River Guide powerfully extends the tradition of Australian representations of character in the animate, transcendent landscape of the spirit." Liam Davison noted in the Australian Book Review: "Tempering the sense of loss and regret is Flanagan's awareness of the comfort to be drawn from others and the almost religiously redemptive qualities to be gained from seeing one's self as part of some vast interconnected scheme. Aljaz Cosini operates largely as a representative character, a loner who feels he doesn't belong but whose genealogy branches out like an extensive river system to embrace Aboriginal stories, Celtic stories, stories from Italy, England, Yugoslavia, and China. He is none of us and all of us, and we are all part of each other." Davison also asserted that Death of a River Guide is "an uplifting and immensely rewarding book." The novel earned the Australian National Fiction Award in 1996.
Flanagan's novel The Sound of One Hand Clapping was originally a play and was also adapted for film. The story begins in Tasmania in 1954, at a construction site where Eastern Europeans who had come seeking new lives are living an isolated existence and paid laborers' wages. One of these men is Bojan Buloh, a Slovenian whose experiences as a child in a war-torn land are also traced. While Bojan is away drinking, his wife, Maria, walks off in the snow to commit suicide. At the time, their daughter Sonja is three. Sonja flees to Sydney while in her teens to escape her father's abuse. At thirty-eight she returns to reconcile with her father and, with the support of families who had known her mother, bear the child she had planned to abort.
"The contrast with the self-confident storytelling of the earlier novel is disheartening," opined Stephen Henighan in the Times Literary Supplement. "The narrative unease betrays Flanagan's uncomfortable relationship to his subject; his familiarity with his assimilated material ... seems to prevent him from assessing it with the tough-mindedness he brought to bear on the broader Tasmanian society in his first novel." Henighan noted that "in the final analysis, Flanagan denies his immigrant characters their hybrid experience. The novel's closing assertion that 'only those who lived it can ever know' a particular history cuts both ways, separating Sonja and her daughter from the Slovenian past while shutting the gates of Tasmanian society against the 'wogs' the novel set out to include." Booklist contributor Nancy Pearl, however, allowed that Flanagan's "strong writing and ability to express the points of view of both father and daughter enrich the reading experience." "There are some stunning set pieces," clarified Judith Kicinski in Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that Flanagan "brilliantly illuminates the lives of those who are 'forgotten by history, irrelevant to history, yet shaped entirely by it.' His characters here transform tragedy as they discover their individual worth."
Variety contributor David Stratton reviewed the film version of The Sound of One Hand Clapping, which Flanagan directed. Stratton noted that the film is limited to Sonja's childhood and her return to Tasmania. Flanagan "sensitively creates a world where old traditions, good as well as bad, are reduced to memories, where such a basic asset as your own language is no longer useful, where the bitterness of the past must be forgotten if there's to be a future." Though noting that "there's little variation in the generally gloomy tone of the drama," Stratton stated: "Given pretty much a free hand to bring his vision to the screen as few novelists are, writer-director Flanagan has done a generally solid job."
Flanagan's 2002 novel, Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, was called "gorgeously written" by Booklist contributor Brendan Dowling. The novel tells the story of William Buelow Gould and is based on a real-life, nineteenth-century petty thief and forger who was sentenced to Sarah Island off of Van Diemen's Land for twenty-five years and subsequently created twenty-six highly regarded paintings of fish. In the novel, Gould narrates his own story, from his difficult childhood and life of crime to his imprisonment in the far-off land of Australia.
Gould's Book of Fish received almost universal praise from the critics. "Flanagan may very well become Tasmania's man of letters," wrote Marc Kloszewski in the Library Journal. A Publishers Weekly contributor commented: "Carefully crafted and allusive, this blazing portrait of Australia's colonial past will surely spread Flanagan's reputation among American readers."
In his next novel, The Unknown Terrorist, Flanagan tells the story of Gina Davies, known as "the Doll." A pole dancer in a bar, Gina's one-night stand with a suspected al Qaeda terrorist lands her face in the papers and on television as she is suspected of being Australia's first homegrown terrorist. Media stories about Gina appear everywhere. Full of hyperbole and outright lies, the stories lead to Gina being the most wanted person in Australia.
"A true page-turner as well as a timely, pithy critique of celebrity culture and the politics of fear-mongering," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor of The Unknown Terrorist. Uzodinma Iweala, writing in the New York Times Book Review, commented: "Flanagan's writing is a brilliant reflection of Gina's world. Full of steamy sex, drugs and violence, with a touch of high-status voyeurism, packaged into short chapters perfect for readers with limited attention spans, The Unknown Terrorist mocks the thriller genre even as it fulfills its expectations."
Wanting is an ambitious story, and features story lines that include Sir John Franklin, whose tragic expedition for the Northwest Passage in 1845 ends in death; his wife, Lady Jane; their adopted Tasmanian Aborigine, Mathinna, who is abandoned before turning to a life of prostitution and alcoholism; and Charles Dickens, who, with Wilkie Collins, writes a play loosely based on the Franklin expedition. "In Wanting, Richard Flanagan has written an exquisite, profoundly moving, intricately structured meditation about the desire for human connection in its many forms--that commingling of compassion, curiosity, care, lust, attraction, intrigue, selfishness and selflessness that is clumsily grouped under that most perilous of all abstract nouns: love," stated Jon Fasman in the Los Angeles Times Online.
Flanagan's book was widely praised by critics. "One of the triumphs of Flanagan's handling of this material," wrote Guardian Online reviewer Giles Foden, "is that he has done it with flair and originality against a backdrop of other hands in both fictional and nonfictional narrative." Rachel Holmes, writing for the London Times Online, also lauded Wanting: "Flanagan brilliantly excavates historical truth with the light touch of an irresistibly good story, humour, and the wry observance that much of European civilisation depends on not dancing naked in polite drawing rooms." "Flanagan is incapable of writing a dull or stock character: He is empathic in flashes of lightning," wrote Fasman, and an Atlantic Monthly contributor noted that, "as always, Flanagan's prose is beautifully crafted at once elegant and astonishing," and asserted that Wanting is the author's "most accessible work to date." According to Lev Grossman in Time, "Mathinna is Flanagan's most successful creation, and his saddest. She's a savage ruined by the desires of the cultured English--an irony lost on everyone but the reader." "In dense, poetic prose, Flanagan characterizes something that exists across human experience, above and beyond historical particulars and cultural differences: 'The way we are denied love. And the way we suddenly discover it being offered us, in all its pain and infinite heartbreak,'" opined Foden. Furthermore, a Kirkus Reviews critic termed the novel "An ingenious, thoughtful and potent demonstration of this assured author's imaginative versatility."
Flanagan, who helped create the Southern Hemisphere's biggest literary prize, the Tasmania Pacific Region Prize, severed ties to it because it is cosponsored by the New Zealand's Forestry Commission, which Flanagan says is responsible for destroying old-growth forests.
Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which was awarded the 2014 Man Booker Prize, was a labor of love for the author but nearly drove him to consider abandoning writing altogether. The novel exhausted Flanagan both emotionally and financially. He reportedly labored on the novel for more than a decade and ritualistically burned each draft as he completed it. Flanagan's slavish devotion to the project nearly resulted in his penury. In an interview with Alison Flood for the Guardian, he explained: "A year and a half ago, when I finished this book, I was contemplating going to get what work I could in the mines in far northern Australia because things had come to such a pass with my writing. I had spent so long on this book." After Flanagan was awarded the Man Booker Prize, sales of The Narrow Road to the Deep North skyrocketed, eclipsing the combined sales of all Flanagan's titles for the last decade put together. Flanagan's success will allow him to escape an unexpected and undesired career change, though this happy coda conflicts somewhat with the savage and unrelentingly bleak tone of the novel itself.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North explores the construction of the infamous Death Railway, a railroad connecting Bangkok, Thailand, and Myanmar that was built by the Japanese during the Second World War to support their colonizing forces in Southeast Asia. The Death Railway earned its nightmarish reputation because it was built by slave laborers and prisoners of war collected by the Japanese army. Almost 100,000 Asian civilian laborers and more than 12,000 Allied prisoners of war died as a direct result of the project. Flanagan's father was one of the Allied prisoners who worked on the railroad and managed to survive it. His grim memories gave Flanagan an intimate familiarity with the episode. In Flanagan's novel, the key character is Dorrigo Evans, a charismatic Australian military surgeon who strives to bring humanity to the surreal and brutal conditions that prevail around him. He tries to protect his subordinates from starvation, disease, and senseless violence, and he routinely implores the Japanese officer in charge of the railway project to be fair and just. He tries to temper the madness around him. Dorrigo's courage is not without limits, however, and as the Death Railway penetrates the steaming jungle, he begins to surrender to its inexorable logic. Dorrigo's narrative does not stay confined to the jungles of Southeast Asia. Instead, Flanagan's prose shifts between different parts of the man's life, juxtaposing violence from the camps with gauzy memories of lost love. This approach allows Flanagan to transform The Narrow Road to the Deep North from a study of a single historical episode into an elegy to all victims of human conflict. The Narrow Road to the Deep North may chronicle a specific instance of inhumanity, but it aims to honor anyone who has experienced the warped logic of war.
Reviewers applauded Flanagan for producing a work that honors the particulars of a specific historical event while making a broader point about war and its survivors. Rachel Holmes, writing for the New Statesman, called the novel a "a visceral act of remembrance and a deeply affecting elegy to fallen fathers." Some reviewers voiced concern about the unsparing violence in which The Narrow Road to the Deep North is steeped. Mark Levine, for instances, noted in his Booklist review that "the protracted particulars of the prisoners' treatment may put off quite a few readers." Levine's view was a minority position, and most critics appreciated that Flanagan's unremitting bleakness was in the service of his artistic agenda. Indeed, many reviewers commended Flanagan for crafting a uniquely beautiful and affecting work out of such daunting historical materials. Catherine Taylor mused in her Telegraph review that "Flanagan's writing courses like a river, sometimes black with mud, sludge and corpses, sometimes bright with moonlight." Ron Charles, in the pages of Washington Post Book World, declared that Flanagan's "story about a group of Australian POWs during World War II will cast a shadow over your summer and draw you away from friends and family into dark contemplation the way only the most extraordinary books can."
From: "Richard Flanagan." Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale, 2015.